For parents, the anticipation of their child's first words is exciting. Will my baby say “Mom” or “Dad”? It is a special moment that will be remembered for a lifetime, marking a significant milestone in the child's development.
However, some toddlers are slower to talk than other kids. It can be difficult and scary for parents to discover why their child isn’t speaking as early as other children their age. Late talking can signify a more serious problem, such as a language delay or developmental disorder.
To help parents recognize the potential signs that their child may be a late talker, this article will discuss the signs to look out for, when to seek help, and how to support your child in their communication development.
But first, what is late talking?
What is a Late Talker?
Late talkers, also known as late language learners (LLE), are children who delay their language development. This delay can manifest in various ways, including difficulty with producing or understanding speech sounds, forming sentences or phrases, and difficulty with expressing thoughts or ideas.
Late talkers may also need help with social interaction and communication and understanding the meaning of words or sentences. In helping a late talker, it is essential to identify the underlying cause of the delay, which may include physical, cognitive, or neurological issues.
Children late to talk may have a speech sound disorder (SLD), a learning disability, or some other cause. If your child is not talking by about age three, or if you have concerns about your child's speech, contact your pediatrician for an evaluation by a speech-language pathologist.
Early intervention is the best way to help a late talker reach their full potential. If your child has a speech sound disorder, an SLP can provide the appropriate therapy and support to help them improve their speech abilities.
How To Tell If Your Child Is A Late Talker
More often than not, late talking is just a temporary stage and not a sign of a problem, but late talkers have been wrongly labeled as having autism. Almost all kids with autism are late talkers—but not all late talkers have autism.
It is important to remember that late talking has many explanations and that the first word usually shows up around 12 months. However, there is a wide variation in when kids start to talk, and it is common to have first words before the first birthday or after the second.
More than half the time, late talking is just a stage, and if you follow a group of 2- and 3-year-olds with language delays, as many as 60 percent will be speaking just fine a year or two later. Therefore, it is important not to panic but rather seek the advice of a professional to ensure that the child is on track with their language development.
Identifying Late Talkers
Identifying if your child is a late talker can be difficult as you may misdiagnose the issue. It requires careful monitoring and understanding of your child's development and awareness of the norms and expectations for language development.
First, it is vital to understand the typical stages and milestones of language development. Generally, by the time a child is 18 months old, they should have a vocabulary of at least ten words and understand basic language concepts.
By the time they are three, they should be actively expressing themselves and engaging in conversations. If your child is not demonstrating these milestones, it is essential to consult a professional.
Here is what you can expect:
18 months - At this age, babies can typically say a few words such as "mama" and "dada." They can equally understand simple commands like "pick up the toy" and use a variety of words like nouns ("baby," "food"), verbs ("come," "go"), prepositions ("up," "down"), adjectives ("hot," "big"), and social words ("hey," "bye").
24 months - At this stage, toddlers should be able to use around 50 spontaneous words and be able to combine two words to form meaningful phrases such as "doggie gone," "eat food," or "my hands."
As you can see, the milestone starts at 18 months. Most late talkers say their first words after 12 months. This is understandable.
Another critical indicator of late talking is if your child does not respond to their name. If they are not responding to their name or responding inconsistently, it could signify something more serious.
You should also consider the context and environment in which your child speaks. If your child cannot engage in conversations in a stimulating, language-rich environment, that could signify a language delay.
The signs and symptoms of Language and Learning Disorders (LLE) can vary widely as research is based mainly on parent reports to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Some of the signs and symptoms that may indicate the presence of LLE include:
- Delayed or nonexistent babbling before the age of two
- Fewer than 50 words by age two
- Difficulties in connecting two words
- Phonological differences compared to peers
- Shorter and less grammatically correct words
- Reduced communicative gestures
- Poor understanding of words and delayed comprehension.
Finally, look for any signs of developmental delay in other areas. If your child is having difficulty with gross motor skills, fine motor skills, or other tasks, it is essential to consider how this might impact their language development.
The best way to determine if your child is a late talker is to consult a professional. They can provide a more detailed evaluation and make recommendations for further action.
What Causes Late Talking in Children?
A toddler between 18 and 30 months old who is not speaking as much or at all as expected but is otherwise developing normally may be classified as a late talker.
Approximately 17.5 percent of children up to age 3 who are slower to develop speech may have a speech or language delay.
Late talkers may be lagging behind on typical toddler speech milestones. However, they are still able to comprehend what they hear (known as receptive language), use body language to communicate (such as waving or pointing), or gradually learn new words.
A late talker might have one or both of the following:
Speech delay - a condition where a child has difficulty articulating words and expressing themselves clearly. This can make it difficult for other people to understand them, or
Language delay - is a condition where a child has difficulty expressing thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Even though they may be able to say some words, they may only have a few words or be unable to put more than two words together.
A Toddler's Late-Blooming Speech Might Be Attributed to the following:
Birth Stats: Babies born underweight or before 37 weeks are at an increased risk of becoming late talkers as toddlers.
Twinning: Twins are more likely to be late talkers than single births.
Family History: Late talking tends to run in the family. It is hereditary. If a family member is a later talker, that may cause a toddler to talk late.
Other Interests: Toddlers who develop early in other areas (like climbing and jumping) can take longer to master language because they are so busy concentrating on those skills. They may often be
good at puzzles
little “escape artists” figuring out how to get out of cribs or other places
always trying to put things together
Lack of Necessity: Children whose parents (or older siblings) are quick to anticipate their needs might take longer to speak up — because there is less need to.
History of Hearing Loss or Ear Infections: Past infections or difficulty hearing can slow speech development.
However, the above does not cover all the causes of late talking in children. Half of late talkers may have other issues hindering them. Among the possibilities are the following:
An expressive language disorder
This is a condition where a child has difficulty producing language properly. It may make them have challenges with pronunciation, word choice, and grammar.
Children with ELD may be unable to produce words or sentences until they are much older, or they may only have a limited understanding of what has been said, leading to delays in communication skills.
An intellectual disability
Autism: Autism is a neurological disorder that results in impaired social skills, communication, and behavior. Late talking is only one of the signs of Autism. However, autism is not usually the case. Not all children with autism are late talkers. Some children with autism are late talkers, and some who talk on time. This is because every child is different, and the spectrum of autism is vast and diverse.
A physical problem: Another cause of late talking can be a hearing problem or a neurological disorder (like epilepsy).
A speech disorder: This is when a child finds it hard to pronounce words. A speech disorder affects the development of language skills. The child may have difficulty using the correct language to communicate their wants and needs, which can lead to frustration and difficulty with communication. This, in turn, can cause late talking.
What Are The Outcomes Of Late Talking In Children?
According to an ASHA study on Late Language Emergence, between 50 and 70% of late talkers can reach a normal language development level by late preschool and school age. However, the same study also states that late talkers are more likely to experience language and literacy difficulties in the future.
Some of the outcomes listed by the study include:
At age 5, children identified as late talkers had lower scores on complex language skills, such as narrating a simple story.
At age seven, those same children had reduced performance when it came to general language ability and grammar.
At ages eight and nine, these children displayed poorer performance in reading and spelling.
At age 13, children identified as late talkers had lower scores on aggregate measures of vocabulary, grammar, verbal memory, and reading comprehension.
At age 17, those who had been late talkers showed poorer scores on vocabulary/grammar and verbal memory factors.
Other studies further support these findings. For example, researchers agree that late talkers who eventually "grow out of it" have been found to have weaknesses in some language and literacy skills, including vocabulary, grammar, phonology, reading, creating stories, writing, reading, and listening comprehension, which can persist until adolescence.
Additionally, skills that rely on language, such as social, behavioral, and executive function skills (planning, organizing, paying attention, and controlling impulsive behavior), are weaker in these individuals.
Furthermore, a study on children aged three to five showed that late talkers do not process speech as easily as their peers, indicating an immature or underdeveloped speech or language processing ability, affecting language and literacy development.
When To Seek Help For A Late Talker?
With the abundance of parenting information available, it is no surprise that different opinions exist when it comes to late talking. Many parents opt for the 'wait and see' approach, which experts often agree is not beneficial for the child.
Early recognition and intervention are essential to prevent any language disabilities, as well as to ensure the child's social and academic readiness.
If your child is exhibiting any of the risk factors mentioned in this article, it is important to seek the help of a speech-language pathologist to prevent any language disorders, such as Developmental Language Disorder, or as the research calls it, Language Impairment.
Early intervention is key to supporting your child's development and ensuring their academic success.
Help Children Speak Up
To ensure that your late talking child has the best chance of thriving, it is essential to seek help from medical professionals. First, have their hearing evaluated by a pediatrician or an audiologist. This will let you know if your child is able to hear at the appropriate volumes and pitches and if they can detect differences in sounds.
After this, you should consult a speech-language pathologist. During the session, the SLP will discuss your concerns, assess your child's ability to understand, speak, and use gestures, and identify the type of communication disorder they may have (if any) and the best way to treat it.
Finding the right professionals and creating a custom program to suit your needs will provide your child with the support they need to thrive.